Working at Caritas has taught me to help open-heartedly to others

Photo: Elitsa Ganeva

Kehan is a Kurdish from Iran, aged 35 years, one of the many young and educated men who have left their homeland, discouraged by the situation there. The imminence of new military conflicts, the unstable political situation, the persecution of men of art, journalists and human rights activists are in conflict with his personal views.

In his homeland, Kehan was a journalist and human rights defender. Ten years ago he decided to leave Iran. He left for and stayed in Northern Iraq for 7 years, where he started helping war refugees. His search for a better and dignified life has taken him to Bulgaria. Here he has found security and the opportunity to develop his potential. In Bulgaria, he is again taking interviews and studying the lives of people, but this time as a social worker at the Centre for Integration of Refugees and Migrants “St. Anna” at Caritas Sofia.

What is your job about?

Every day I am visited by people who need a lawyer or a translator to visit a hospital or because they need a job. I and my colleagues tell them what we can do according to their specific needs. I explain what they need to know if they want to work in Bulgaria. I inform them of the free Bulgarian language courses at Caritas Sofia. I talk to them about their profession, register them in our system, and then connect with different companies that are recruiting staff of their occupational profile.

Is it easy or hard for refugees to find a job?

In the event where people do not have a refugee status, there are indeed difficulties. Many companies are reluctant to hire them. In other cases, even with legal documents, they refuse employment because they do not want refugees.

Some time ago, at “St. Anna” Centre we organised a labour exchange for refugees. We introduced employers to refugees seeking jobs. Interviews were held. It turned out that one of the problems faced by many refugees of so-called green passport is that this document does not entitled them to open a bank account. So, even if they hire them, employers want them to present bank details in order to pay their salary. However, they are not entitled to open a bank account, which hinders their hiring or keeping the job. Most companies are reluctant to pay in cash to their employees. There is no solution to this problem yet.

At the same time, there are many vacant jobs in Bulgaria, but the government lacks a well-developed programme that would create opportunities for the Bulgarian economy, giving refugees a chance to join the labour market.

How is your business day running?

I start work at 8:30 am. First, I make a review of information on job-seeking refugees registered in the Caritas system. I phone people seeking help, organise meetings and interviews with employers. There are foreigners who need a translator from the languages I command, Persian and Kurdish.

After my work day, I try to read in Bulgarian language to improve my knowledge. My tongue is tough but I am doing my best. Often, children in the refugee centre where I live call for me to play football with them. They call me “kaka”, which in Persian means “elder brother, brat”, “Kaka, come to play football with us” and, of course, I join them. I’m tired, but it’s a pleasure for me. I always have time for them and I love them very much.

What is the hardest thing in your job?

The hardest thing is to know that I cannot help. Sometimes you have to tell some people there is no way to find a home and start work unless they have refugee status. I explain them in detail, I have to tell them plainly and directly the real things. Yes, I can give them hope, but when I have to be honest with them and tell them we cannot help them, I do not spare it.

Many refugees come armed with hope, but in a few days I see those people again and they have lost it. Just now, when I went to lunch, I met a woman who was accommodated in the Refugee Centre in Ovcha Kupel. She complained to me that police had detained her fiancé and he was now referred to the Special Home for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners in Busmantsi. She was explained that if they got married here he could stay, but it can’t happen while he is in a closed centre and he has a status refusal. He may be then deported to Iraq.

What reactions have you seen from your family and friends about your job?

Because of the dictatorship in Iran, I am unable to go back there. For 10 years I have not seen my family. We talk on the phone. When I told my mother and father that I was working with refugees, they supported me. They asked me if I felt well about doing it, and I assured them I am happy, so they are happy too.

But there are people in the refugee centre who are asking me about my job. Many who come from other countries are not racists, but share some prejudice. They ask me, for example, “Why are you working with Afghan children?” and I ask them “Why not? Children are children, regardless of their nationality. Refugees are refugees no matter where they come from. We are all humans.”

There are also people from organisations working with refugees who also have prejudices. They were outraged by the odour in the centre or by the fact that the refugees were dirty or unkempt. I told them it is disrespectful. Even if dirty – they are still humans.

It is not good to show that attitude. When working with refugees, you should be more careful, with an open heart and mind. Some refugees are indeed unkempt. However, this is a general problem of their upbringing, the lack of education, the environment where they grew up. I assume it is due to sharing various habits and culture.

Do you think it might change?

Yes, it is not a problem for me to explain it to them. I had such a case. Several people came for an interview – nice people, but they were unkempt, unshaven. I explained to them that when they sit the interview, they must be tidy and clean because it is the custom in Bulgaria.

In most cases, the reason people to carry along in this appearance is that no one has explained them about cultural differences, about what is the custom and what is not. In the other countries, there are many cultural integration courses. In Bulgaria, such programs have not yet been developed.

In Iran and Afghanistan, there are communities that are rather secluded and very religious. It is absolutely normal there to have such appearance while walking along the street. Thus, young men coming from Iran and Afghanistan bring this vision and culture here where it seems unacceptable. In Iran, for example, you may offend women walking down the street. While here it is not normal behaviour.

Refugee Centres should have courses to introduce refugees to Bulgarian traditions and culture, to the order of Bulgarian society.

What is the antidote against the fear of the Other?

When I came to Bulgaria, I initially found work as a machine operator. In the first two months most of my colleagues were unwilling to communicate with me. They stayed away from me. But then they started to get to know me and realised I was not a bad person.

Many Bulgarians have prejudice against refugees because they think the state gives us money to settle while Bulgarians live in poverty. I think there are also racist groups that promote hatred messages and create the bad image of refugees. Many believe that all migrants are terrorists. The truth is that refugees should be viewed as a human asset, not a threat.

In some European countries, refugees receive good education and can be beneficial. If the state has a good strategy, then refugees will be an asset for the society, not a burden. Germany and Sweden are good examples in this regard. But most people have no real, reliable information about refugees. They receive information only from the media. The media is looking for sensation, becoming a propaganda tool. They sell sensations. Two-way education is required – both for the local population and for the refugees.

I believe that the situation of refugees in Bulgaria is good, but not good enough. Care and strategy for refugees are not comparable to those in Germany and other Western European countries. If the state invests efforts to make serious education courses in refugee centres, it will be a benefit. Many non-governmental organisations provide non-formal education, which is good, but the state should get involved. Appropriate integration programmes will improve the situation.

Regarding whether the community itself accepts refugees, I can say that most people in Bulgaria are very kind and I like communicating with them. Those who behave badly with refugees are just a handful of people. There are also refugees who behave badly with Bulgarians. On both sides there are “trouble” people.

Is there a personal story that has excited you very much?

Every story of refugees excites me. There are nights where I am unable to fall asleep, think about the stories of these people. I realise their problems are very serious. You need an open heart and mind. You need a strong character to do this job.

Has your life changed your work with people seeking and receiving international protection?

My work at Caritas has had a positive impact on me, and professionally it has discovered my potential and extended my knowledge. It taught me how to listen to people. It armed me with inner strength. It changed my thinking about life.

What does it mean for you to be “free”?

Freedom is something different for everyone. My fellow citizens in Iran live under occupation, so freedom for me means people to respect each other, not to be divided according to religion, nation, to have no discrimination.

What is your main dream right now?

I dream of receiving a refugee status. It usually takes 3-6 months, but not in my case. I have been waiting for my papers for 20 months. My strongest dream is that all the wars around the world be stopped. No more refugees and no need for people to leave their homeland because the fate of refugees is very, very difficult.